Monday, January 25, 2016

The Tragedy of Argentina's Small Things

Íngrid Betancourt, The Blue Line: A Novel

Julia reads the future like scattered pages from a torn book. That is, she reads future images clearly, but without sequence or context, making her messages often opaque. Sure, clairvoyance saved her sister’s life when storms attacked their boat; but she couldn’t save friends from the Peronist massacres in 1973 Buenos Aires. And thirty years later, trapped in American suburban doldrums, her strange future glimpses probably won’t save her marriage.

Franco-Colombian politician and former political prisoner Íngrid Betancourt, who herself draws opinions as divided as Perón, has written several nonfiction volumes about her life, Colombia’s political struggles, and her captivity. This is her first novel. Reading throughout, I couldn’t help recalling Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, another lone novel from a political activist. They address similar themes of nationalism, identity, and the collision between past and present.

Like countless mid-20th-Century country dwellers, Julia’s family emigrated to Buenos Aires seeking work. Living amid the city’s bustling ethnic Italians, teenaged Julia meets Theo, a social chameleon with electric political views. Theo leads Julia into the Montoneros, a radical militia that somehow simultaneously lionizes Marx and Perón. Think “Weather Underground.” But when circumstances return Perón from political exile, the militia that restored him becomes his target.

Betancourt’s narrative, like Roy’s, shifts time, sometimes abruptly. One chapter ends in 1973, the next commences in 2006. Here Julia and Theo, now nearly thirty years married and living in Connecticut, have fallen into comfortable Yanqui boredom. Julia’s visions warn her someone, somewhere, will soon commit irreparable infidelity, or worse, but she cannot know who. Suddenly motivated, she races to rescue her marriage from the scourge of Wonderbread American life.

Ingrid Betancourt
Like Arundhati Roy, Íngrid Betancourt’s storytelling trends very slow-moving and cerebral. Characters are generally manifestations of themes, and she doesn’t craft plot turns so much as metaphorical reversals. Readers accustomed to active momentum and character-driven narrative may find Betancourt’s highly constructed approach daunting. It certainly requires willpower to pursue its slow, meandering development. Betancourt doesn’t write for casual airport or bedtime reading.

But unlike Roy, who apprenticed in Bollywood before publishing her novel, Betancourt has visible authorial fingerprints across her writing. Her symbolism is often unsubtle and high-handed, while her story runs more on social conscience than character or action. Long passages get driven by political debate, which, since principal characters are university students and a priest, gets understandably intellectual. Imagine entire chapters where the characters remain seated. This book demands patience.

Understanding this novel does require some willingness to step outside ourselves. Not only must we accommodate ourselves to the South American setting (by Norteamericano standards, Julia and Theo’s early courtship appears age-inappropriate; the politics seem often strange and contradictory), but the Magic Realist style takes some getting used to. When something so extraordinary as clairvoyance gets treated as banal, rationalist Western reading habits simply no longer apply.

However, readers willing to make the investment Betancourt demands will find a smart, humane portrait of two forces shaping a generation of South Americans. (Despite the Peronist setting, Betancourt is clearly writing about herself and Colombia.) As Cold War-era juntas surrender to middle-class stability, as a generation raised seeking the next rebellious cause descends into making a living, we realize that oppression doesn’t require guns to rob life of meaning.

Where praise will accrue to this novel, and it probably will, it’ll probably come from audiences who read for theme. Future generations may encounter this novel in graduate school. In a reading environment clogged by action thrillers and character dramas, Betancourt briefly acknowledges both, but doesn’t linger, courting audiences who’d rather feel engaged than hypnotized by books. It’s easy to think about, but hard to get lost in, this novel.

I’ve drawn several parallels between Betancourt and Arundhati Roy here, so let’s clarify that these parallels are very imprecise. First, The God of Small Things is undoubtedly the superior novel; Betancourt seems more comfortable with expository speech than storytelling. But also, Betancourt’s vision is far less bleak than Roy’s, suggesting people’s ability to triumph over seemingly overwhelming circumstances. (Also, despite what I’ve said, Roy did eventually publish a second novel.)

One reads this story not to journey with the characters, since Wikipedia shows where they’re ultimately headed. Rather, we journey with the peoples symbolized by these individual characters, the working masses of Buenos Aires, “los desaparecidos,” and immigrants trapped in American malaise. I certainly wouldn’t mistake this book for fun. But behind its authorial hiccups, it’s an interesting snapshot of two violently conflicted times and places.

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